Known today as a destination for hotdog specials and old-fashioned lemonade and ice cream treats, the location where Ashworth's Drugstore currently sits started out as "Uncle Bob's Corner." Who was Uncle Bob and what was his corner? To answer these questions, let’s travel back to the early days of the town of Cary. Frank Page, the founder of Cary, bought much of what comprises downtown Cary in 1854 and started selling lots to local citizens and out-of-towners to develop and populate his new town. In 1879, Frank Page sold a prime corner lot at the intersection of Academy and Chatham Streets to a lady named Alice G Harrison, the wife of Robert J Harrison, owner of Harrison Wagon Company, inventor and future mayor of the town of Cary. The southwest corner of the intersection became the home of the Harrison family and was conveniently located close to the wagon works.
Over the years, the wagon company was wildly successful, with good quality wagons sold far and wide. However, the company eventually succumbed to the advent of the motor car. According to Tom Byrd’s “Around and About Cary”, “the company declined after 1900 and closed about 1913.”
That wasn’t the end for Robert J Harrison in Cary, though. Mr. Harrison ran a café and store on this corner in a two-story wood sided building that was built on the property that Alice Harrison had bought many years before. “Uncle Bob”, as he was known to students from Cary High School, was a popular figure at the school and in town. We don’t know how many years the café/store had been in existence, but it had been long enough to develop a loyal following among students at the school. A “sketch” from the 1917 CHSite yearbook of Cary High School describes him this way:
Soon after the sketch appeared in the CHSite, “Uncle Bob”, who had been a widower for a number of years, married a lady from Alamance County and moved away to live near Elon College. Harrison sold the property shortly after his marriage. The purchaser was J M Templeton, Jr, a son of the beloved town doctor, J M Templeton.
Harrison’s second marriage was of short duration and ended in his wife’s death in 1919. His only living child Robert C Harrison died in 1923. After these sad milestones, “Uncle Bob” went to live in the North Carolina Soldiers Home in Raleigh. He was admitted for residency on February 3, 1926.
North Carolina Old Soldiers’ Home
Photo courtesy of North Carolina Archives and History
He lived out his remaining days there, and he retained his genial nature to the end. He traveled across the south east attending Confederate Veterans conferences as far away as Biloxi, MS and Dallas, TX. He also stayed active while a resident at the Home and was known for selling North Carolina factory made socks in Raleigh, including at “State College”, now North Carolina State University. These two articles points out his enthusiasm for and pleasure in making sales, just as in “Uncle Bob’s” shop keeping days!
Because he was one of its oldest relatives near the end of the facility’s life (the home closed 1938), he was celebrated on his 85th birthday along with two 90 year old veterans. Here are photos of Robert J Harrison, one taken in earlier days and one taken in 1928 of the three “birthday boys”! At age 85, Mr Harrison was a little grayer but still recognizable.
Robert Johnson Harrison died at the North Carolina Soldiers’ Home on February 8, 1933 and is buried in historic Hillcrest Cemetery in Cary near the son who predeceased him.
Before Harrison’s death in 1933, the Cary Masonic Lodge built its new building on the site of Uncle Bob’s Corner. A newspaper article from 1931 detailing the laying of the cornerstone for the new building mentioned that it was being “built on the ground where the home of R J Harrison formerly stood.” The article doesn’t make clear if the Harrisons had lived above the café/store or in a separate house on the site, but it does give a description of the new brick building:
Over the years, the property changed hands several times, eventually being purchased by Henry R Adams of Cary. Mr Adams was the son of J P H Adams and Cora Reavis Adams, long time citizens of Cary. He was educated at Cary Elementary School and Trinity Park School in Durham. Henry's sister, who owned a drug store in Durham, is said to have influenced his decision to study pharmacy. He studied in Massachusetts, and when he returned to Cary, he bought property on the southwest corner of Academy and Chatham to open his drug store. The drug store continued to be a local hang-out and source of employment for Cary High School students just as in Uncle Bob’s day. When Ralph Ashworth purchased the store in the late 1950s, he retained the soda fountain, which continues today to offer a walk down memory lane to a simpler time and place.
An added note: February 25, 2021
In reviewing the "Cary's 100th Anniversary" booklet today, I ran across this anecdote from Russell O Heater, who described Uncle Bob's Corner this way: "a rather tall building which was the usual type of soft drink joint and operated by old Uncle Bob Harrison - Mr. R J Harrison of the former Harrison Wagon Company. He operated this for a long time and it was the hang-out for the Cary High School boys who came down to the "pop joint" for their cold drinks... potted meat and crackers that came out of a barrel." This anecdote adds another level of detail that brings Uncle Bob's historic corner alive!
From the Friends of the Page Walker Hillcrest Cemetery Walking Tour brochure: "Russell O. Heater (Jan. 20, 1895-Jan. 10, 1971) was one of Cary’s earliest and most prolific developers, building Sunset Hills, Veteran Hills and Russell Hills. Known as “Mr. Cary”, he also started Heater Drilling Company, the Cary Recreation Corporation (now the Cary Swim Club) and served on the Cary Town Council and Wake County Commission. He was a leader in the Methodist Church, Boy Scouts and the Masonic Lodge. He tended Hillcrest cemetery for 25 years." Mr Heater knew firsthand the fun to be had in Uncle Bob's Corner.
1. Photograph of Uncle Bob’s Corner – 1917 CHSite yearbook
2. Tribute to Robert J Harrison – 1917 CHSite yearbook
3. Photograph of North Carolina Old Soldiers’ Home courtesy of North Carolina Archives and History
4. Newspaper clipping #1 of Robert J Harrison as sock salesman from The News and Observer, Tuesday, June 26, 1928
5. Newspaper clipping #2 of Robert J Harrison as sock salesman from The News and Observer, Sunday, February 12, 1928
6. Photograph of Robert J Harrison taken from the publication “Cary’s 100th Anniversary”, official publication of the Cary Area Centennial Corporation, May 1971
7. Photograph of Robert J Harrison at age 85 from The News and Observer, Sunday, January 15, 1928
8. Photograph of Robert J Harrison grave marker – author’s own
9. Newspaper clipping of Masonic Lodge from The News and Observer, Wednesday, July 22, 1931